North Koreans caught importing or distributing foreign media content inside their country face being executed or sent to political prison camps with their families, Daily NK has learned. The country’s authorities are generating an atmosphere of fear by sticking to an outmoded system of “guilt by association.”

In a telephone conversation with Daily NK on Thursday, a source in North Korea said people who have imported recordings, videos, propaganda, printed materials, radios or books from South Korea “that could become illegal means of reactionary agitation” face execution. “Or, they get dragged off with three generations of their family to a political prison camp run by the Ministry of State Security,” he said.

An image showing a portion of the explanatory material for the anti-reactionary thought law. / Image: Daily NK

Materials providing a summary of the anti-reactionary thought law, which were obtained by Daily NK earlier this year, say that bringing in or distributing movies, recordings, videos or books from South Korea is punishable by up to life in a forced labor camp or death, depending on the severity of the crime.

Though the law specifies life in a forced labor camp, violators are apparently being sent to political prison camps.

The law’s explanatory material makes no mention of sending violators to camps with their families. 

“People who distribute imported South Korean media content to other people also face execution,” said the source. “Or, they face imprisonment with their families at a political prison camp run by the Ministry of Social Security.”

The Ministry of State Security and Ministry of Social Security operate separate systems of political prison camps. If you are sent to a camp run by the Ministry of State Security, you are likely never getting out. At camps run by the Ministry of Social Security, however, model prisoners at least have the possibility of being released.

North Korean authorities appear to be taking the importation of foreign media more seriously than its distribution inside the country. However, they clearly intend to eliminate people who conduct import and distribution activities as part of broader efforts to stem the spread of information from the outside world.

Moreover, North Korea is severely punishing people who possess or watch material related to South Korea.

View a larger .pdf file of this table here.

“Not all violators of the anti-reactionary thought law are sent to political prison camps,” said the source. “Depending on the severity of their crime, they can receive other punishments.

“People who possess media content from South Korea are regarded as having watched them, regardless of how many days they had them in their possession,” he continued. “The violator himself is sent to life in a labor camp while his family is exiled to a hard-to-live place.”

If someone is caught watching South Korean videos, their punishment depends on the number of videos in their possession and the types of videos, the source further explained, adding: “The violator can get a maximum of life in a labor camp, while family members living with him [or her] get exiled.”

The law’s explanatory material states that people who watch, listen or possess South Korean movies, recordings, videos, books, music, drawings or photos face five to 15 years in a labor camp. Meanwhile, those who watch or encourage others to watch media from “enemy countries” like the United States or Japan can face life in a labor camp or death, depending on the severity of the crime.

However, the law’s explanatory material makes no mention of exiling the families of the criminals. North Korea’s criminal code does not mention the exiling of families, either. 

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the leadership podium during the Party Foundation Day military parade in Pyongyang on Oct. 10, 2020. / Image: KCNA

According to the source, people with past infractions related to the possession or distribution of foreign media content – and who are caught possessing or watching South Korean videos following the implementation of the law last year – are “unconditionally” sent to political prison camps. This, the source claimed, reflects the North Korean leadership’s efforts to “mercilessly” punish reoffenders. 

“Those who aid [in the importation, distribution, or possession of foreign media content] face seven to 10 years of forced labor,” said the source. “People with three past offenses are sent to political prison camps.

“Likewise, watching or distributing videos from enemy countries like the United States or Japan can get you life in a labor camp or 10 years of forced labor,” he continued, adding, “However, reoffenders are just sent to political prison camps.”

The law’s explanatory material calls the United States and Japan “enemy countries” and stipulates a minimum of 10 years of forced labor and a maximum of death for importing or distributing media from those nations. 

Meanwhile, North Korea is operating a “unified command on non-socialist and anti-socialist behavior” to crack down on violations of the anti-reactionary thought law. Daily NK understands that the unified command is in the midst of arresting many people.

Faced with shortages of facilities to incarcerate violators, North Korea is also expanding its political prison camp system. In fact, Daily NK has found that new camps have appeared in Sungho-ri and Pyongsan County, North Hwanghae Province, over the last couple of months.

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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Mun Dong Hui is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about his articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.